In a parallel universe (or just 20-odd years ago), going to university in the UK was free. Fast forward two decades and it’s no secret that university isn’t cheap. The yearly sum of £9,250 has been imprinted in students’ minds for the past decade, meaning tuition fees alone cost most students £27,750 over the course of a three-year degree.
Universities are well accustomed to draining student finances, with some even charging for parking and laundry. And with student interest rates going up alongside the largest drop in living standards since records began, is the rite of passage even worth the money?
The Tories are creating what feels like an economic dystopia: Among the onslaught of cost increases is National Insurance, which is to be hiked to 1.25 percent to fund the health and social care levy, while Brits are expected to spend an extra £180 on food this year. From groceries to the cost of broadband, energy and water bills, everything except our savings is going up. Inflation is forecast to peak close to 9 percent later this year, stimulated by soaring energy prices and Russian invasion of Ukraine.
So, why is the cost-of-living crisis hitting students particularly hard? The National Student Accommodation Survey, conducted by Save the Student, found 80 percent of students worried about the cost of living. With 58 percent of students noticing their energy bills rise due to the cost-of-living crisis, many are cutting back on shopping, eating out and socialising to compensate.
Meanwhile, nearly half have considered dropping out due to financial worries. With 9 percent of students making use of food banks during the pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis deepens worries that disadvantaged students will inevitably face the larger consequences of eviction and homelessness.
Niall Hignett, a first-year law student at Durham University, works upwards of 30 hours a week on top of his studies, to support himself as an estranged student (i.e. he doesn’t have the support of a family network). Managing during the cost-of-living crisis will quickly become “difficult, if not impossible,” says Hignett. “It’s very apparent my paid workload and my degree workload are unsustainable.” Next year, his rental and utility bills are set to increase by over £2,000 per annum. Help from universities is “nowhere to be seen”, he says.
Pre-existing support is already being diluted by inflation. While Durham University recently introduced a guarantor scheme to give students easier access to renting private property by providing a UK-based guarantor in order to rent a home, Hignett says the service actually costs 5.5 percent of annual rental costs. He describes universities as “active contributors” in what will inevitably culminate in a student poverty catastrophe.
Tight budgets and excessive pasta consumption were already synonymous with the student lifestyle to the point of cliche, but the cost-of-living crisis will impact diets as well as bank balances. Julia Andrusiak, a 21-year-old student at the University of Liverpool, says “higher food prices are a big concern… I used to eat healthily, given the cheaper price of food”, but recently, she’s says she’s started to eat “worse quality food – and feel worse”.
For Léo Karran, a final year genetics student at the University of Sheffield, rising rents and bills are “the scariest aspects” of the cost-of-living crisis. His personal share of the energy bills rose by £20 per month overnight – he and the four people he lives with saw a £100 monthly increase.
In February, the chairman of Tesco said that the “worst was yet to come” when it came to the rising cost of food. Karran says that he now times his shops for when “the biggest clearance variety will be there”. His bus fare, which he must get due to a chronic condition which makes walking long distances difficult, increased by 20p a trip last month.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s measures to lessen the impact of the crisis include a £200 energy bill loan and a £150 council tax rebate. Households belonging to band A-D properties eligible to receive a council tax rebate this month. But unsurprisingly, students’ living arrangements have not been incorporated into the government’s energy support package.
According to Save the Student, the rising cost of energy bills will hit students hardest. The £200 energy bill loan has been framed as a “credit”, when in reality, it’s a loan masquerading as support.
“Lots of students either live in halls of residence or have their bills included in their rent, in which case they won't benefit from the £200 credit,” Tom Allingham, head of editorial at Save The Student, explains. He adds that crucially, “they will still have to repay it in instalments over the following few years. In addition, even among those who do receive it, the chances are that they'll receive less than they repay”.
The number of people per household is higher among students than in the general population, so while most students will receive a smaller percentage of the £200 credit, they’ll “repay bigger chunks once they've graduated – and are likely living with fewer people with whom to share the burden”. Save The Student estimates that students in England will repay around £60 million more than they'll save through the £200 credit.
Mia Grace, a board member of tenants’ union ACORN, says that “everyone, including students has a fundamental right to safe, secure and affordable housing”. In the East Midlands, average rental prices have seen some of the biggest increases, with tenants paying 3.6 percent more now than a year earlier, while rents in the UK as a whole are rising at the fastest rate for five years.
MK, a 20-year-old student in Brighton, says she “can’t keep up with the housing market anymore”. An economic migrant, MK – who requested anonymity to protect the identities of your flatmates – says she’s aware that “being able to move freely to the UK within fortress Europe is a privilege, one that comes with a safety net”. She is concerned that “being frugal can be isolating”, given that “most of the culturally acceptable ways of socialising in this country involve drinking and spending money”.
And despite living in a house with “constant maintenance problems”, MK has faced an increase in rent of £110PCM in a house she describes as “breaking bit by bit”. With one housemate facing a council tax bill of £2,000 (due to not being a student), MK says that ultimately, “solidarity is what’s getting us through”.
The cost-of-living crisis ultimately reinforces a crisis that was already facing students long before the existing hikes came into force: maintenance loans were never large enough to cover living costs. The growth in spaces like FinTok – where TikTokers and financial experts share tips and hacks on how to save money (even if they don’t always work), and other websites offering students tips on how to save money hints at the wider struggles existing within the student economy.
“It's worth noting that the interest-free overdraft that comes with most student bank accounts is one of the safest ways to borrow money,” says Allingham, “and should be one of the first ports of call, long before credit cards and private loans.”
It’s clear that individualising an issue and relying on your own solutions to a cost-of-living crisis in the absence of state aid isn’t ideal. But given the sheer absence of governmental and institutional support, it’s worth highlighting other ways of being thrifty and, more importantly, remembering that all universities have student finance advisors and the option of hardship funds and bursaries for those least well-off. Grace, on her part, advocates joining a union: “Living in unprecedented times calls for unprecedented means of building a fairer society, and that’s what ACORN is all about.”